For Tenants Facing Eviction, Jan. 31 Still Comes too Soon

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A last minute reprieve Sunday night by Congress has added 30 days to a federal moratorium on evictions, giving those facing evictions more time.

Still, community service agencies and legal aid professionals fear the number of residents who could be displaced should the moratorium be allowed to lapse Jan. 31.

“We’re concerned that after the first of the year, if there’s no extensions of moratoriums or rental assistance, then we’ll get flooded,” says John Petit, manager of the housing division for Community Legal Aid Services. “There’s going to be chaos in the community.”

Lawmakers in Washington came to an agreement Sunday afternoon on a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package and federal spending bill, one that presumably contains provisions to provide financial rental assistance to those affected by the pandemic and an extension of the moratorium until the end of January.

Under a bi-partisan relief bill introduced last week, $25 billion would be earmarked for rental assistance for states and communities through the Coronavirus Relief Fund. And, the moratorium would be extended through Jan. 31.

It was unclear as of Monday morning as to the precise text of the agreement. The House of Representatives and the Senate is expected to vote on the measure today.

Meantime, the number of eviction cases could mount and create a backlog that would bombard the community should the ban be lifted at the end of next month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 4 issued an order that prohibits landlords, property owners or others with a legal right to pursue eviction from taking action to remove tenants until after Dec. 31.

Still, it hasn’t prevented evictions from being filed in court, Petit said.

Since the moratorium was imposed to Dec. 13, 189 eviction actions have been filed through Youngstown municipal court, Petit noted. That’s down by 107 from 296 filed during the same period last year.

“While that sounds like good news, one of our major concerns is that those other cases are still out there,” he said. “Once the restrictions are lifted, those cases will catch up.”

And, it’s likely that the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic will add to the number of evictions experienced during a typical year, Petit said. That could place even more strain on social services, he added.

“There aren’t enough safety nets out there for people to go to,” he said. “Some are able to move in with family and friends, others can go to shelters.”

Yet even the shelters are limited because of COVID.

“We’ve had to lower our maximum capacity to observe social distancing guidelines,” said John Muckridge, president and CEO of Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley.

Before the COVID pandemic, the shelter on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was able to accommodate 134 men and women. That number is now reduced to 80 in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. As of Dec. 17, the Rescue Mission had one bed available.

“We’ve been blessed in that we’ve not had a significant spread,” he said.

Community Legal Aid’s Petit said the pandemic and the rental crisis hit the African-American community especially hard. “African-American women with children make up a disproportionate and high percentage of cases we see,” he said. “That’s accelerated with the pandemic,” as layoffs continue and hours are cut in sectors such as the service industry.

While the prospect of a new round of funding targeted for rental assistance is heartening, there is concern as to whether the aid will arrive fast enough to stave off a large number of evictions.

“There have been a lot of close calls over the last few months,” noted Shelia Triplett, CEO of Mahoning Youngstown Community Action Partnership, or Mycap, based in Youngstown.

Mycap was the recipient of $1.5 million in aid from the Ohio Department of Community Services in November, the bulk of which is used to help those affected by job loss during the pandemic to remain in their rental units or homes, Triplett said.

Demand for rental assistance is so great, more than $1.1 million of that money was spent by mid-December, and another 230 applications were being processed, Triplett reported. “We are truly seeing those who are impacted – those who have experienced a loss of job, behind in their rent or mortgage – we’ve been able to help a lot of those people,” she said.

Triplett said the agency dispersed some 300 checks on a single day just two weeks ago. Moreover, she’s noticed a growing number of middle-class families affected by the pandemic who risk eviction.

“We’ve never had this volume,” Triplett said. “We primarily serve low and moderate income families. But, we’ve seen a shift and are now working with more middle-class applicants who have never sought assistance before.”

Tenants facing eviction who can claim loss of income or job because of COVID must apply for the program and provide documentation, Triplett said. Once approved, the money is distributed directly to the property owner or landlord to offset the lost rental income, she said.

But time for this program is running out, since the program expires Dec. 30 and Triplett said all funds must be spent by then. While she expects another round of funding from the state of Ohio, no such appropriation had been approved at the time of this story’s posting.

“They’re going to need to do something in January,” Triplett said. “We envision they’ll be an increase in inquiries.”

Yet the moratorium hasn’t staved off evictions entirely.

“Evictions have come fast and furious,” said Terry Vicars, case worker for Catholic Charities Diocese of Youngstown. “And we are out of funding.”

Vicars said as Catholic Charities has burned through the $1 million it received to help tenants in need. He reports that his agency alone has helped more than 300 residents across Mahoning County stay in their homes.

“The numbers over the last two months have been staggering,” he said.

That’s because the moratorium is not a universal order that shields every renter from eviction, said Magistrate Anthony Sertick, who oversees Youngstown Municipal Housing Court.

“There is some misinterpretation about the moratorium – it’s not a blanket order,” he said. “That’s not how it works.”

Sertick said the CDC guidelines are overly broad and allows the local courts a fair amount of discretion over eviction proceedings. Tenants threatened with eviction for non-payment, for example, must provide some evidence of a loss of income or job due to COVID while demonstrating “best efforts” to work with their landlord.

“For the most part, we’ve been very liberal when it comes to interpreting ‘best efforts’ of the tenant,” Sertick said. “We’ve looked at it from a case-to-case basis.”

Sertick said hearings on more than half of cases filed since September were stayed until next year. Should the moratorium be extended, those cases would be pushed back until it is lifted. Other tenants, he said, used the time period to resolve any issues with their landlord, which led to dismissal of their cases.

“That’s what we try to achieve,” he said. “A win-win situation.”

Others see the moratorium or an extension of it as simply bad policy.

Jeff Rickerman, president of the Mahoning Valley Real Estate Investors Association, said that the moratorium does little to address the problem.

“It’s a really bad idea,” he said, noting it merely defers the issue to another day. More relief, on the other hand, should be pursued in order to help both tenant and landlord, he added.

About half of the housing providers in the area are small businesses that may own one or two rental units, Rickerman said. They rely on that rental income to pay mortgages and taxes. Without it, these property owners stand to lose everything. Once a property goes into foreclosure, it could take years to resolve the issue.

“The solution is helping people out and providing the funding to make the problem go away instead of making it bigger,” he said. “Our federal or state government shouldn’t be interfering with private contracts,” he said.

Rickerman is concerned that the moratorium leaves open the opportunity for bad actors to abuse the directive. “There are some people who could take advantage of this – especially problem renters who were problems before COVID,” he said.

Rickerman said most of MVREI’s members work closely with their tenants anyway, and eviction is usually the last resort. “Very few of our members are forced to evict residents,” he said.

Pursuing an eviction is often expensive and could take a rental property off the market for three months, Rickerman added. “

The last thing they want to do is evict someone,” he said. “We encourage our members to be responsive to their residents.”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.